As straws in the wind go, a victory for the Far Right in a council by-election in the south of France might not appear too menacing.
All the same, mainstream parties of both right and left were examining with alarm on Monday the small print of the triumph of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in a re-run local election at the weekend in Var, near Toulon.
A former boxer, Laurent Lopez, won a seat on the department (county) council in the canton of Brignoles with 53.9 per cent, in a run-off against a candidate of the main centre-right opposition party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). Both left-wing candidates and another far-right candidate had been eliminated in the first round the previous Sunday.
The area, although traditionally communist-run, has given substantial votes to the far right in the past. On this occasion, however, Mr Lopez scored more votes than the NF has ever won in the area.
Appeals by left-wing leaders in Paris for a “Republican” front to block the NF and elect the centre-right candidate were heeded by some left-leaning voters. Many others failed to vote, or cast spoiled ballots, in protest against high unemployment and the cautious economic policies of the Socialist President, François Hollande.
There was a sharp increase in the turn-out between rounds but many of the new voters supported the NF. National political commentators said the result in Brignoles suggested that swing or “protest” voters were turning away not just from the left but also away from the UMP, the “natural” or mainstream opposition party of the right.
The outcome confirmed a swing towards the National Front in recent nationwide opinion polls. The polls suggest that the National Front could win more seats, and towns, than ever before in municipal elections next March and could top a nationwide poll for the first time in the European elections in May.
Ms Le Pen, the NF’s leader, said the result of Sunday’s local election should be treated with caution, then immediately threw caution to the winds.
“This augurs a desire in France for change,” she said. “It says that the people of France are going to express themselves and to mobilise. It augurs towns won [by the NF] and hundreds of council seats, maybe thousands, won (in the municipal elections in March).”
She may yet come to regret setting the bar for NF success so high. A survey by the newspaper Le Monde at the weekend found that her efforts to “de-demonise” and clean up the party she inherited from her father, Jean-Marie, had not been matched by re-organisation at grass-roots level. With less than six months to go before the municipal elections, the NF was in a position to field candidates in only one town in six, Le Monde said.
The result in Brignoles was nonetheless a stark warning to the “traditional” ruling parties of right and left – and perhaps especially for the centre-right. The main centre-right party, the UMP, is bitterly divided on how to respond to the rise of the NF since Ms Le Pen took over in 2011.
Some UMP politicians have pushed for alliances with the NF at local level against the left. Others, such as the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, have borrowed NF themes and language. Others warn that any rapprochement with the NF will be ruinous for the centre-right.
Local left-wing politicians in Var put much of the blame for the NF’s success on the unpopularity of Mr Hollande. But they also said many local voters no longer saw much difference between the attitudes and campaign language of the NF and the UMP.